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‘I Am a Christian’: Mary’s Assumption and the Martyrdom of Isidore Bakanja
Today, August 15, is the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary; or, as the Byzantine Catholics and Orthodox say, the Dormition of the Theotokos (Mother of God). It is a day peculiarly appropriate, then, to reflect on what death means for Christians; how, unlike the pagans and atheists, we should not fear death, but prepare for it in faith and hope as the entrance to a new life in Heaven.
From the early centuries of the Church, accounts told of how Jesus’s Mother Mary “fell asleep” in the Lord (i.e. died) surrounded by the Apostles, was buried, and was discovered several days later to have been taken up body and soul into Heaven. St. Thomas the Apostle arrived late (poor Thomas always seems to have been running late, as he did after the Resurrection), and when Mary’s tomb was opened her body was gone. “Dormition,” in fact, means “falling asleep.” Other accounts say that the Apostles saw Mary being assumed into Heaven. A more modern theory is that Mary was assumed without dying first; the official Church dogma does not say either way, but the traditional Catholic liturgies in both East and West hold to the Dormition. The singular grace Jesus chose to give His Mother by bringing her into Heaven body and soul is the Assumption, a foreshadowing of the Resurrection of the dead that all those who believe in and follow Christ will experience at the end of time (e.g. John 6:40, 11:24-25; 1 Thess. 4:16; Phil. 3:20-21; Acts 24:15).
Besides being the celebration of Mary’s Assumption/Dormition, today is the feast of many inspiring saints, including St. Tarcisius, a youth martyred by pagans for defending the Holy Eucharist; St. Stanislaw Kostka, young Jesuit novice and visionary; David Roldan-Lara and other martyrs of the Mexican Revolution; and two friends of the great St. Augustine, namely Simplician of Milan and Alipius of Tagaste. But one saint in particular, a saint to whom I have a special devotion, died for his dedication to Christ and Christ’s Mother Mary, making it peculiarly appropriate that he should share a feast day with Mary. That saint is Bl. Isidore Bakanja.
Isidore Bakanja was a native of what was then the Belgian Congo, in the age of European imperialism in Africa. In his time, there was a struggle between the European missionaries who fought for the rights of the native Africans, and the Europeans who were in Africa simply to make a profit and exploit the natives. Some of the latter group positively hated religion because of the missionaries’ efforts to prevent that exploitation.
Into that situation came Isidore Bakanja, an assistant stone mason for white colonists who was converted to Christianity by Catholic Trappist missionaries and baptized on May 6, 1906, when he was 18 years old. Young Isidore was a zealous convert, and he was especially devoted to Jesus’s Mother, Mary, seemingly having a deep understanding of the fact that no one is closer to Jesus than His Mother, and she is a short path to deeper understanding of and love for her Son.
The Rosary, of course, has long been a popular Catholic devotion, a chaplet of Biblically-rooted prayers (including the Our Father) said while reflecting on Biblical events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. With his Rosary in his hand, Isidore sought to talk about the faith with anyone who would listen. He was not trained as a catechist, but his zeal led others to think of him as such.
Isidore also prominently wore a scapular, little pieces of cloth with images of Mary and Jesus worn around the neck. Scapulars are worn by lay Catholics who do special devotions as religious orders do, but while remaining in the world. Mary herself gave the Carmelite scapular to St. Simon Stock in a vision, and the Church encourages Christians to wear scapulars and perform the devotions. That’s just what Isidore did, but it led to his martyrdom.
“[Catholicsaints.info] He left his native village because there were no fellow Christians, and worked as a domestic on a Belgian rubber plantation. Many of the Belgian agents were atheists who hated missionaries due to their fight for native rights and justice; the agents used the term ‘mon pere’ for anyone associated with religion. Isidore encountered their hatred when he asked leave to go home. The agents refused, and he was ordered to stop teaching fellow workers how to pray: ‘You'll have the whole village praying and no one will work!’ He was told to discard his scapular, and when he didn't, he was flogged twice. The second time the agent tore the scapular from Isidore's neck, had him pinned to the ground, and then beaten with over 100 blows with a whip of elephant hide with nails on the end. Isidore was then chained to a single spot 24 hours a day.
When an inspector came to the plantation, Isidore was sent to another village. He managed to hide in the forest, then dragged himself to the inspector. ‘I saw a man,’ wrote the horrified inspector, ‘come from the forest with his back torn apart by deep, festering, malodorous wounds, covered with filth, assaulted by flies. He leaned on two sticks in order to get near me - he wasn't walking; he was dragging himself’. The atheist agent who had beaten Isidore tried to kill ‘that animal of mon pere’, but the inspector prevented him. He took Isidore home to heal, but Isidore knew his end was near. ‘If you see my mother, or if you go to the judge, or if you meet a priest, tell them that I am dying because I am a Christian.’”
After all that horrific treatment, one would think there would be bitterness in Isidore’s heart—at the atheists, at the white colonists, at least at the agent in particular. But Isidore Bakanja was a great saint, and he had no hatred in his heart. Like Jesus his master, Isidore forgave his murderer. Two missionaries spent several days with Isidore, saw him receive the last sacraments devoutly, and asked him to forgive the murderous atheist agent. Isidore replied that he had done so already; “I shall pray for him. When I am in Heaven, I shall pray for him very much.”
Isidore’s death was long and painful, drawn out over six months, which he spent in prayer and patient suffering. He died on August 15, 1909, the feast day of the Assumption, with his Rosary in his hand and his scapular around his neck. On a feast celebrating Mary, he went to join her and her Divine Son, whom he had loved and served so well upon earth, wearing the symbols of that ardent love for Jesus and Mary.
Christians are still persecuted and martyred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo today, by radical Muslims. We are fortunate in that most of us are allowed to practice our religion publicly without fear of death, but that is not true in many countries around the world. Every day Christians are called to heroic deaths, just like Bl. Isidore.
Let us pray that we may be like Isidore Bakanja and the Blessed Virgin, looking to death not as a tragic end, but as the entrance to a new and joyful life in God’s presence in Heaven.
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